In the Beginning: How to Improve Writing by Focussing on Organization

 
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I was a member of the Istanbul Toastmasters club for many years. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Toastmasters, it is a non-profit educational organization that teaches leadership and public speaking through a worldwide network of clubs. Basically you show up, stand up, and speak up. It sounds simple enough but fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias around the world, so for many of us this was not simple at all. But it was worth it. I gained confidence, learned to speak well, and got a lot of support from the many friends I made at Toastmasters.

Why am I telling you this?  This blog is not about speaking, but it is about developing skills, and my experience with Toastmasters taught me many things that I have applied to developing myself as a writer.

First of all, there are three types of speech at a Toastmasters meeting - one-minute unprepared speeches on random topics, five- to seven-minute prepared speeches, and two- to three-minute speeches where you evaluate someone else’s prepared speech. The very first thing you learn is that no matter what kind of speech you are making it has to have structure. It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

For me, the hardest thing to do was to give a structured one-minute speech. When they call you up on stage your mind is racing, trying to figure out what you are going to say on the topic and how you are going to start and finish your speech, all while the clock is running and dozens of people are staring at you. Sounds stressful, right? It was. In the beginning I was a big, rambling, directionless mess. I just wanted to get through those 60 (felt like sixty thousand) seconds without fainting or crying, and if I even managed to stay on topic it was a miracle. But every time I did it, it got a little easier to focus and put that structure into place. In the end the structure was happening naturally without any conscious effort.

Our 10-minute writing prompts are like those one-minute speeches in many ways. You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to write, you just do it.  When you start, you are probably glad if you get any story down. But each time you do it, it will get a little easier and your writing will get better. But to really improve we need to focus on specific areas that we want to develop. And this month Andrea and I want to talk about structure. We want to talk about the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Part of the challenge of these timed practices is to reach an ending in the short time you are writing. That means from the very first sentence you need to be focussed on getting somewhere, even if you don’t exactly know where you’re going.  For me, it all starts with the first sentence.

Beginnings

For many people, figuring out how to start a story is the hard part. Overthinking leads to underwriting. Our prompts are designed to help you skip the thinking and get straight to the writing!

The trick is to start in the middle of the action, in the middle of the scene. Don’t start with backstory or explanations. Get straight into it!

Many of our prompts are overheard sentences, taken from the middle of conversations. They are presented without context so it is easy to start your story with one of these sentences and create your own world around it. Often these prompts hint at some conflict so that the natural response is to write towards a resolution.

When you read the prompt, try to imagine who would say it and in what context and for what purpose. I don’t mean that you should sit and analyze it. I mean first impression, what flashes across your mind? Then build on that. Write the first sentence that comes to you. Run with it.

Does this guarantee a good story every time? Heck no.

This guarantees that you write something. And every time you write, it will get easier. Theo Pauline Nestor (check out my review of her book to learn what other genius things Ms. Nestor has taught me) says there is no way to right good without writing bad. None of us start out perfect. So if it doesn’t come out right, let it come out wrong. You will learn from it. And the more you practice, the quicker you will develop.

So take a look at our Prompts page and find a first sentence that speaks to you. We’d love to know what inspires you, so please post your 10-minute writing in the comments below.

And stay tuned next week when Andrea will be writing about what comes next: the middle!